Finding Her Way Home: Cassie’s Journey

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Cassie Carmichael’s high school accolades summed up in one word? Impressive.

She was offered academic scholarships by several universities, excelled on three sports teams, and worked as a lifeguard at the Baptist Encampment, all while maintaining strong relationships with family and friends. Her story is a triumphant one, but living that story was not always easy.

Child Protective Services took Cassie away from her mother, a heroin user, when Cassie was 14. While the separation was painful, Cassie says that her mom was “going down a path I didn’t want to be on.”

For Cassie, the hardest part was leaving her older brother. When Cassie entered the foster care system, her brother had just turned 18 and was not eligible to be placed in a foster home.

At first, Cassie rotated through a handful of foster homes in the Abilene, Texas, area. Since her brother also lived in Abilene, they were able to keep in touch. After a few months, Cassie was placed with the Mellings, a new foster family in Galveston – seven hours away. Cassie admits she had “attitude problems” about the move.

“I wasn’t really okay with being that far away from my brother because we’ve always had a great relationship,” said Cassie. “I kind of fought it and I didn’t want to be there.”

Even while Cassie was admittedly standoffish, the Mellings welcomed her into their Galveston home with open arms and lots of loving patience.

During Cassie’s sophomore year in high school, the Mellings decided to move to Brownwood, Texas, to be closer to family. The move also put Cassie 300 miles closer to her brother.

The Mellings made it a priority to help strengthen Cassie’s relationship with her biological family. When Cassie’s mom and brother came to Brownwood for her high school graduation, her foster parents invited them to dinner and made efforts to get to know them. “They really tried to connect with my family because they know how much it means to me,” she says.

Today, Cassie is a doting auntie to her brother’s newborn son. And now that she lives closer, she can visit often. “Every time I go over there, they make me change dirty diapers,” Cassie laughs. Diapers and all, Cassie loves spending time with her growing family. She enjoys taking her nephew to the park and “just having fun with him.”

The Melling foster home is a busy one by any standard: Cassie is the oldest in a household of eight, with four foster sisters and a foster brother.

Cassie is deeply grateful for her foster parents. “I love them so much,” she says. “They’re super cool and they trust me. They believe in all my goals and they know that I can do whatever I put my mind to.”

Cassie’s senior year of high school was packed with college entrance exams and a full academic workload, but she found time to be a member of the basketball, powerlifting and track teams and work as a lifeguard. Prioritizing her classwork while balancing extracurriculars paid off – Cassie was accepted to three universities, each acceptance letter arriving with an attractive scholarship offer.

Faced with a choice, Cassie signed up for college campus tours, starting with Angelo State University (ASU) and the University of North Texas in Denton. BCFS Case Manager Alexzandra Hust accompanied Cassie on the ASU tour. Cassie noticed most of the other students touring with their parents, but with her BCFS mentor Alexzandra by her side, Cassie wasn’t discouraged. “BCFS is part of my family!” she beamed.

Cassie fell in love with Angelo State and committed to attending ASU in the fall, accepting a $10,000 scholarship for her excellent GPA and ACT scores. She also plans on joining Angelo State’s Powerlifting Club.

With her freshman year of college in full swing, Cassie makes sure her busy schedule includes staying in touch with family.

“My foster mom would always joke with me, saying, ‘I’m going to make you take online classes because you’re going too far away!” Cassie recalls.

“It’s great now that I’m going to Angelo – she can come and see me all the time.” Passionate about helping people, Cassie plans to study psychology or social work.

“I’m just trying to go where God wants to lead me. I want to do social work so I can help kids like me. Then, I want to do psychology so I can work in drug rehab and try to figure out everything, from what kind of hold drugs have on people to where I can try to forgive my mom for all the stuff she’s done.”

“I feel like God put me here for a reason,” says Cassie. “Everyone has places where things happen to them in their life, and they don’t know if they’re going to make it. I feel like God tests us, and this is what He did: He put me in this situation because He knows what we can handle and that we can get out of it and make something of ourselves.”

The Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program operated by BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene helped Cassie transition out of foster care and become the strong, independent young woman she is today. PAL helps youth aging out of foster care learn valuable life skills like building healthy relationships, responsible money management, goal-setting and health & nutrition.

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Award-Winning Resiliency

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Starla Huff and Nickolas Wilkerson are two youth from the foster care system who have faced more than their fair share of tragedy and injustice. By holding onto their faith, working hard, and a little help from supportive foster families and BCFS Health and Human Services-Tyler, today Starla and Nick both stand tall – ready for whatever tomorrow may bring.

Meet Starla

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Starla and her three brothers lived with their grandmother for many years while their mother battled drug addiction.

“My mom was a user. She did drugs while I was in her presence,” Starla remembers. “Often, she would take me with her wherever she was going.”

That experience, along with several instances of abuse, led Starla to her own struggles with chemical dependency and self-harming behaviors at a young age.

“I started doing drugs when I was 10 or 11, smoking and drinking,” Starla says. “I used to cut myself and I tried to commit suicide multiple times, and I was going to a dark place and most of it was because I was on drugs.”

“My family’s not very close, so I didn’t really know any of my family, except for, like, my immediate family, and they never cared for any of my mom’s children because my mom was, like, the black sheep in the family.”

Starla entered the foster care system on her 15th birthday and was moved to Waco’s Trinity Home of Faith, a shelter for youth in foster care. Two months later, on October 4, she arrived at the foster home of Mr. and Mrs. Rohus in a small East Texas town.

“I still wasn’t the best kid,” she recalls. “I’d get in trouble at school, I did not have a filter, I said whatever I wanted. I was still smoking.”

A year later, on her 16th birthday, Starla left the Rohus foster home and moved in with her biological father, a decision she now considers one of the worst she has ever made. According to Starla, her father sexually assaulted one of her friends.

A month later, Starla returned to the Rohus’ foster home, where she met a new group of foster youth who helped change her perspective.

“I’m so blessed that the foster home still had an opening,” she says. “When I came back, I was the oldest in the house, and so I had a lot of responsibilities. We started getting younger (foster) kids, so I straightened myself out. I told myself that I couldn’t do what I did when I was growing up, that I had to be a role model – so I did.”

Meet Nick

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Nickolas Wilkerson is an Oregon native who, like Starla, grew up in a family ravaged by the damaging effects of substance abuse.

“My mother and father were very abusive to each other,” Nick recalls of his parents, who both battled addictions to drugs and alcohol. “They couldn’t hold a job, they fought all the time, so we were finally placed with my grandma because my parents weren’t fit to care for us.”

Nick’s grandmother wanted him to have mother and father figures, so she sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in Texas when he was 8 years old. Nick moved to the remote Texas town of Harleton, where he stayed for four years.

“My aunt and uncle adopted me,” he explains, “but my aunt was really abusive. One night, I kind of felt like my life was threatened, so I ran away. It caused a whole ordeal with police, and the neighbors found out that she was abusing me. My aunt and uncle decided that they would put me into the [foster care] system.”

Nick entered the foster care system at 12 years old; at 13, he moved into the Hall family’s foster home. “They’ve been my support,” Nick says affectionately of the Hall family, who welcomed him with open arms and provided the stability and support system of a loving family.

“My mom showed me that through God I could accomplish anything,” Nick says of his foster mom. “They strengthened my religion; it was one of the biggest things they did for me. I was into sports, and they were very supportive of that,” he says. “They were just there for me.”

Preparation for Adult Living (PAL)

Soon after Starla’s return to the Rohus’ foster home, Mrs. Rohus told Starla about BCFS-Tyler and the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program. Nick first came to BCFS-Tyler when he turned 18, eager to take advantage of programs for youth who aged out of the foster care system.

Starla and Nick completed the PAL program operated by BCFS-Tyler. PAL teaches youth how to set and achieve their goals, create healthy relationships and learn positive self-guidance. From how to write a check to filling out scholarship applications, the PAL program teaches youth the skills needed in the “real world,” and how to succeed on their own.

“They helped with my FAFSA, they set me up with classes, and bought my books,” Nick said of BCFS-Tyler. “From there on, anytime I called them and needed help with college things or if I had a problem that I couldn’t solve by myself, they were there. They’re my support line.”

Starla says the PAL program instilled in her a newfound confidence.“They taught me a lot about self-respect and to accept yourself for who you are. That’s really helped me, because I used to have really low self-esteem and I’ve gotten better about how I feel about myself.”

Award-Winning Resiliency

When Starla and Nick graduated high school one year apart, their case managers from BCFS-Tyler were right alongside them to celebrate. Shortly after graduation they were each awarded a prestigious accolade: the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS) Foster Youth of the Year award.

The award is granted annually by DFPS to one outstanding youth in each of the 11 DFPS regions in Texas. Nick garnered the award in 2015, and Starla in 2016, marking the first time two youth from BCFS Health and Human Services have won the award back to back, much less both from the small East Texas town of Tyler.

“To win this award, the youth must demonstrate strong leadership skills, motivation, academic excellence and extracurricular involvement,” explains Carla McCalope, BCFS-Tyler Program Director. “Starla and Nick are both very grounded, motivated and determined to make it.”

“Starla and Nick are proof that through hard work and help from supportive families and effective youth programs, good things can happen. We can break generational cycles of abuse and poverty,” McCalope says. “We are so proud of them, and can’t wait to celebrate their next accomplishments.”

A New Beginning

Today, Nick and Starla attend Tyler Junior College. Nick is a biology major who aspires to go to medical school. Starla is working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing, with plans to become a flight nurse in the Air Force.

“I want to finish college, I want a degree,” says Nick, matter-of-factly. “I want to make something of my life. My goal is to be a doctor. If God has another plan, then so be it, but that’s what I’m going for!”

“When my aunt and uncle put me back in foster care, I was angry and I didn’t really have anybody to turn to,” said Nick. “My foster parents that I have now, they took me to church and through that, I found that God had a plan for me; I found faith in myself and Him. My confidence was lifted and my joy was lifted.”

“Before I came into foster care, whenever I had gotten really into drugs, I claimed to be an atheist. I guess because I was so angry,” said Starla. “When I came to this foster home, they were going to church and said I had to come. The minister was talking about drugs and alcohol and basically everything that was my life. I started crying and praying, ‘Jesus, I need help, can you please guide me,’ and He did.”

Although they did not know each other until recently, Nick and Starla both followed similar paths: Both spent time in foster care, turned to BCFS-Tyler for assistance and, one year after the other, they were awarded the Foster Youth of the Year award by the state of Texas.

Too many youth across the United States experience abuse or neglect, and struggle to overcome the emotional and physical scars left behind. But just as Nick said, inspired by the Godly wisdom of his foster mother, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13), and with God ALL things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

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